Q&A with Jamie Brenner
1.What inspired The Wedding Sisters? How did you come up with the idea of three sisters and a triple wedding?
The idea for The Wedding Sisters came after my second marriage at age 40. Marrying in your forties is very different than marrying in your 20s. You realize that a wedding isn’t all about you, but is really about family. It isn’t about that day, it’s about the past and the future. At my second wedding, I thought more about my daughters’ happiness than my own. And I missed my grandparents, who were not around to see it. I realize how that at my first wedding, they understood worlds more than I did about what I was entering into with a wedding ceremony. The things I came to understand between my first and second weddings are what I explore with The Wedding Sisters.
2. Weddings are defining moments not only for couples, but also for families. The Wedding Sisters captures this complexity from all sides by considering multiple points of view, from mother-of-the-bride Meryl to her three daughters. How has the experience of crafting so many perspectives changed how you feel about weddings in general? What advice would you give a bride-to-be?
Going into this novel, I was thinking first about the stress on the mother of the bride. There is the desire to give your daughter her dream wedding, but at the same time, there is always the pitfall of letting your own wedding fantasy get in the way -- consciously or unconsciously. In the beginning of the book, Meryl’s husband reminds her, “This is not about you.” I realized writing the book that the same applies to the bride herself. I think the conventional wisdom for the bride is, “This is your day.” It is, and it isn’t -- at least, not entirely. A wedding is a rite of passage, one of the few we have left in our modern culture. It’s the parents sending their daughter off to a new phase of her life. It’s the grandparents seeing the turning of generations. It’s the community giving gifts for the couple to begin building a home. Everyone is invested in the big day. In The Wedding Sisters, Meryl and her daughters get so caught up in their own personal, secret drama, the greater meaning of it all is at risk of being lost completely. My advice to a bride-to-be is not to worry about the small compromises you have to make along the way in order to keep the peace. On the day of the actual wedding, none of the details that you think are so important in the planning stage will matter when you are actually standing at the alter with your husband-to-be, surrounded by all the people you love and who love you.
3. The father in this novel is a Louisa May Alcott scholar, and the three sisters are named after the characters in Little Women. Is The Wedding Sisters in any way based on that classic story?
Growing up with a brother and no sisters, Little Women really captured my imagination about sisterhood. So while The Wedding Sisters is not literally based on Little Women, it was inspired by it and there are parallels. In Little Women, the father is off at war and the mother has to temporarily raise the girls on her own through lean times. In The Wedding Sisters, the father is battling a job crisis and is absent from the wedding planning, leaving Meryl, the mother, to plan the wedding on a tight budget. My three sisters, Meg, Amy, and Jo, mirror the personalities of the three Louisa May Alcott sisters: beautiful Meg, selfish Amy, and rebellious tomboy Jo. Like Little Women, my novel deals with money and class issues, the turbulence of romantic love, and the bonds of family.
4. Did any aspects of your own upbringing influence this novel?
My maternal grandmother was a huge influence on me. She was an endlessly nurturing woman who often talked to me about life and love. (And she was one of three sisters.) While she adored my grandfather, I always sensed she had regrets about her own life. In The Wedding Sisters, my favorite character is the grandmother, the family matriarch, Rose. Rose is much more arch, much more cutting and enigmatic than my grandmother, Frances. (Interestingly, from a creative point of view, she was the last character I added to the book and ended up being the most important.) Another aspect of my early life living in Main Line Philadelphia that influences the book is the feeling of being surrounded by a lot of extreme wealth, but being apart from it. That is the experience of the sisters in my novel, who grew up in Manhattan and attended an exclusive private school only because their father was on staff. Finally, the best part of my childhood makes an appearance the book: the idyllic summers I spent at the Jersey shore. In The Wedding Sisters, the mother, Meryl, thinks back to those days in her own life and that nostalgia leads her to make some questionable decisions. I think when you are mid-life, rosy-hued retrospect can make it even more difficult to deal with current challenges and disappointments. It’s an occupational hazard of growing older!
5. What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you while researching or writing this book?
The oldest sister in the book, Meg, is a political journalist. I didn’t have a lot of the details figured out yet when I happened to be in Washington, DC and emailed an old college friend, Dana Bash, to see if we could get together and catch up. She happens to be CNN’s chief political correspondent. She has a crazy schedule, so in order to see her I ended up visiting her at work on Capitol Hill and got to sit in on her interview with Senator Lindsey Graham when he announced his potential presidential run. One of her colleagues took me on a tour of the rail car that runs underground between the senator offices and the Capitol building, and brought me behind-the-scenes of the day to day of a journalist covering the senate floor and Capitol Hill. I got to visit the senate floor and watch a vote underway. All of this made it into the book! It was truly thrilling. I’ve never wanted to be anything except an author, but watching them work I realize there is a close second out there. And most importantly, thanks to the book, I ended up seeing an old, dear friend I’d missed for a long time.
6. You mention planning a wedding later in life as part of your inspiration. How was getting married at age 40 different than getting married the first time in your 20s?
There is more pressure when you’re not only dealing with your significant other and your parents, but also your children. It was an added layer of complexity compared to the first time I got married. Getting married in your twenties is all about you, and at forty I was thinking more about the kids having a positive experience. I didn’t wear white; My daughters and stepdaughter wore white dresses and I wore midnight blue. But the biggest difference is that with a first marriage in your 20s, you are just starting out in life and the future seems endless. At forty, there is as much of life behind you as there is ahead of you, and that’s a very different road to travel with your partner. I had come to realize that a wedding, like marriage itself, is never perfect but is ultimately one of life’s great joys.